Saturday, December 31, 2005

The God Hypothesis

It's often claimed that theism is untestable, but that seems to me mistaken. Surely we should expect significant differences between an atheistic universe and one guided by a supreme being that is all-powerful, knowing, and benevolent. Indeed, this is precisely why the problem of evil is such a powerful anti-theistic argument: it rests on the idea that the world is not how we would expect it to be in light of such a being's existence. We would expect God to create the best possible world, which ours does not seem to be. That's one failed prediction for theism, and thus a count against the theory.

The argument from divine silence rests on a similar inference. If the Christian God existed, he would surely let us know this. Perhaps each Sunday he would light up the skies and speak to us in a booming voice, or something along those lines. But of course nothing like this actually occurs. At present, the epistemic situation of many individuals provides them with little or no reason to believe in God. This is not something we should expect to be the case if God really existed. (Indeed, I think it makes traditional Christianity completely ludicrous - see my argument from hell.) Thus we have a second failed prediction for Christianity, and another serious count against the God hypothesis.

Now, it must be granted that these failures do not conclusively falsify theism. But then, I'm not sure that empirical evidence can ever conclusively falsify anything. Suppose I posit the existence of a black hole near our solar system. Others might cast doubt on this by showing how the standard predictions we'd make from this hypothesis fail to match up with our observations of reality. But I could always respond by claiming a measurement failure on their part, effectively denying their observations; or I might suggest that they have misunderstood the nature of black holes, thereby disputing the legitimacy of their predictions; or I might simply say that extraordinary circumstances allow for the possibility of the black hole's existence no matter how unlikely it may seem given our evidence. (Evidence can be misleading; improbable events may still occur.) The same responses are open to the theist. But of course they are unconvincing in either case.

These problems might be avoided by reverting to an extremely weak notion of 'God' as a causally inert being that makes no difference to the universe. As in the case of my positing a causally inert blob that likewise 'is nowhere' and 'does nothing', we surely have no reason to believe in such a pointless entity. Ockham's razor can safely shear it away.

But I'm sure most theists do not conceive of their God in such a useless way. So Ockham's Razor, or complaints about 'unfalsifiability', should not be the atheist's first line of attack. I think much stronger arguments can be made by taking the God hypothesis seriously, i.e. as making testable predictions about the world, and then pointing out how dismally those predictions line up with reality.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Educating Priorities

Universal Acid suggests that "if you're in favor of progressive taxation and national health care, consistency requires you to favor an emphasis on educating the least-gifted." But that's assuming the only foundation for political liberalism is philosophical egalitarianism* - which I should hope is not the case because that kind of egalitarianism is stupid and unjust: justice requires that we give equal concern to the interests of all, rather than holding the worse-off to be more important than everyone else.

* (Well, I guess he might mean prioritism instead, which evades the stupidity charge but still strikes me as unjust. Anyway, the important point is about the alternative bases that are being overlooked...)

A better basis for liberalism is provided by utilitarianism: due to the diminishing marginal utility of material goods, redistributing wealth to the needy could help maximize overall welfare. (If it didn't, then we shouldn't do it.) But this does not require blind commitment to equalizing outcomes in all arenas of life. It all depends on the contingent facts about what would actually be best for all involved.

Now, in the particular case of education, it seems to me that there are several considerations which count against neglecting gifted children.

For one thing, students with more potential could receive much greater benefit from the same educational attention and resources than would less able students. In this sense, less able students may constitute a utility drain, sucking up all our resources, and to little effect. Better to concentrate our teaching resources on those who can actually obtain a significant benefit from it! Just like our material resources should be distributed to those who can benefit most from them (i.e. the poor). This combination of views is straightforwardly coherent on utilitarian principles.

Secondly, intellectual excellence exemplifies an intrinsically valuable mode of human flourishing. To allow such potential to be squandered is, in my view, an incredible tragedy, which we should care greatly to avoid. (Yes, I have perfectionist leanings. So sue me.) By contrast, there's nothing particularly 'excellent' about being wealthy, or having expensive operations whilst others die needlessly from medical inattention. One can thus consistently combine intellectual perfectionism with material and medical egalitarianism.

Thirdly, anecdotal evidence suggests that gifted students need to be extended. The mental anguish arising from a failure to meet this need can exhibit itself in the form of bad behaviour, anti-authoritarian resentment, etc. Naturally, we don't want our best and brightest to grow up to be violent revolutionaries or the like. They're capable enough to cause a lot of trouble if that's what they really want. Let's not drive them to the dark side, eh?

(For some non-anecdotal evidence: "studies establish that up to 20 percent of high school dropouts are gifted." What are we doing to them?)

Finally, it might be thought that, perhaps after a certain point, intellectual talents exhibit increasing marginal utility, i.e. the benefit of set 'boost' is better for you the more you had to begin with. (This is distinct from my first point, that set resources might lead to bigger 'boosts' in intellect for gifted students.)

From personal experience, I think this is true of musical ability, for example. After a fairly steep raise in benefits from learning how to play some fun basic tunes, you get several years of progress which aren't really all that rewarding, until you finally get to play more and more wonderful pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov, etc. I would benefit greatly from being just slightly better at the piano, whereas being slightly better at the flute (where I am much worse to begin with) wouldn't do much for me at all.

It's an interesting question what utility pattern intellectual boosts might follow. Plausibly, the steepest gains are to be made from picking up basic numeracy and literacy skills, so a focus on those that are struggling in these absolute (rather than comparative) terms might well be justified. But I suspect that after that, the difference between being moderately dull and moderately smart may not be so significant, whereas boosting someone from great to extreme intelligence might have a much greater personal significance.** If nothing else, this might be because we tend to become more emotionally invested in, and dependent upon, our particular talents. I play the piano more than the flute. Likewise, we might expect gifted students to end up using their intellect more than struggling ones. (They might choose to go into academia, whereas others prefer to become craftsmen or American President.)

** (There are difficulties in conceiving of a standardized quantity for the 'boost', though. Is there the same "amount" of intelligence between the two intervals I cited above? Is this even a coherent notion?)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Compulsory Voting

I’d always assumed that compulsory voting was a bad idea, mostly for the sorts of reasons underlying argument ‘A4’ below, but reading my brother’s honours thesis on this topic immediately changed my mind. I’ll be drawing heavily from that work in what follows…

All the evidence shows that compulsory voting is a sure-fire way to significantly increase voter turnout, and it may be the only means available for halting the continuing trend of declining turnout. Such consequences would be beneficial for several reasons:

1) Low voter turnout tends to produce unequal representation, favouring the rich, well-educated, and older people. As V.O. Key (1949, 527) wrote, “The blunt truth is that politicians and officials are under no compulsion to pay much heed to classes and groups of citizens that do not vote.” Compulsory voting would thus help ensure that the interests of politically disengaged groups (typically: the poor, uneducated, and youth) are not ignored.

2) Civic participation in one arena may stimulate broader participation and interest in other political/civic activities.

3) Compulsory voting might also serve to improve the culture of politics, as campaigners no longer need to worry about “mobilizing” their base. This reduces the cost of campaigning, and thus the role of money in politics, which can only be a good thing. Politicians can instead focus on explaining their policies and trying to convince undecided voters to their point of view. This would encourage more moderate discourse and rhetoric, and discourage aggravation or extremism, as the need to avoid alienating undecided voters is at less risk of being outweighed by the need to “get out the vote” by rousing the passions of existing supporters and hardliners.

4) The previous two points work together to create a more politically informed electorate. Responsible citizens may feel obligated to become more informed before voting, and campaigners have more incentive to provide such information, in their bid to persuade the electorate to support their candidate’s policies.

As for the main arguments against compulsory voting:

A1) Individuals have a right to express their political dissatisfaction.

But compulsory voting can easily accommodate this by allowing votes of ‘no confidence’, or allowing voters to submit blank ballot papers.

A2) Such compulsion is a violation of individual freedom.

But the imposition of voting is very small compared to the social benefits noted above. Appeals to principle are especially implausible here because we already accept much greater impositions, e.g. jury duty and taxation, as legitimate. Besides, compulsory voting is a natural extension of New Zealand’s present practice of compulsory electoral registration.

A3) Some might object to the paternalistic nature of the first ‘pro-compulsion’ argument above, since the compulsion is not just for the public good, but particularly for the good of the groups that would otherwise not vote.

But some political philosophers argue that coercive paternalism can be justified if the beneficiary reasonably trusts the paternalist. And although coercive paternalism tends to undermine trust, this might be counterbalanced by other “trustworthiness-enhancing conditions of government”. Promotion of democratic participation indicates the government’s trustworthiness, and thus coercive paternalism directed towards this end may be intrinsically more legitimate than other forms of paternalism.

A4) One might deny that low voter turnout is a problem in any case. Common sense suggests that compelling ill-informed citizens to vote reduces the chances of electing the candidates that truly are best.

But this rests upon two false assumptions. First, it assumes that ignorance is fixed and static. Even if initial elections contain many ill-considered votes, recall that compulsory voting would, arguably, lead to a more politically informed electorate in the long term. Secondly, the argument assumes that most people vote altruistically. But if people instead vote on narrower values (whether favouring their own interests or those of an exclusive group or sub-community to which they belong), as seems more likely, then the problem of unequal representation looms large. Even ill-informed voters could help remedy this problem, as (to quote my brother) “votes compelled from disengaged voters are likely to parallel votes from politically aware members of the community who operate in similar life circles,” and thus have a good chance of accurately representing their interests.

A5) Finally, it might be thought that compulsory voting would be unpopular. (It would be rather ironic if the politicians who introduced it ended up being voted out by a swell of resentful disengaged voters!)

But in fact the evidence suggests the very opposite. The Fabian Society note that “Since 1943 - when the earliest opinion poll was conducted on the subject - never fewer than six out of ten voters have supported compulsory voting in Australia. Not only that, but also those who favour it have stronger views than those who are opposed.”

In summary, then, there’s much to be said in favour of compulsory voting, and not much that holds up against it. Just for fun, let’s put it to the vote: who thinks we should make this compulsory?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

What Next?

With my third year now completed, I'm trying to figure out what to do next. I was going to spend another year getting a double degree, but now I think I'll go straight into honours instead. (The main advantage being saving a year's time in getting into more advanced philosophy. Though as an added bonus, because I've done more than one degree's worth of courses already, I'll be able to discard those three courses where I only got an 'A', thus yielding a perfect GPA for my bachelor's degree.)

The big questions are 'where?', and 'doing what?'. My main goal for now is getting a good grounding in philosophy that will allow me to gain entrance to a top American university (or Oxford or ANU) for graduate study in 2007. Well, that and doing challenging and enjoyable philosophy, of course; but I expect they should go together.

As far as topics go, I'd most want to do some metaphysics and philosophy of mind, then some philosophy of science (especially as I haven't done any yet), and I feel vaguely obligated to get some history of philosophy under my belt at some stage too.

I'm not too sure how the honours thesis works (particularly, how much choice of topic the students have, or how much it is constrained by one's choice of supervisor), but some interesting topics that spring to mind include:
- Modality
- Philosophy of mind, esp. intentionality, subjectivity.
- Micro-macro relationships: reductionism, supervenience, emergence.
- Indirect reasons (the common thread between such diverse issues as: indirect utilitarianism, caring about reliability/knowledge rather than just truth, generalizations, etc.)
- Philosophical logic, e.g. problems involving indexicality, and/or philosophy of probability, esp. the principle of indifference, Bertrand's paradoxes, etc.
- Metaphilosophy, esp. the role of "intuitions" in philosophy.
- Political philosophy of collaboration: open source, creative commons, wikipedia, etc.

It would probably be best if I could get into one of the better Australian universities -- particularly ANU if I'd get to work with philosophers in the RSSS (e.g. Chalmers, Hajek, etc.). But it might be difficult to organize at this late date. In particular, I'd need significant financial assistance, and probably accommodation at a "Halls of Residence" (to make the transition to a new country a little less stressful). So I need to look into whether those are still open possibilities. [Update: looks like accommodation is probably available, but too expensive for me to afford. Honours scholarship applications were due back in October.]

Or I can stay at Canterbury for another year. Some of the offered honours courses do sound quite interesting. In the first semester I would likely do PHIL 453 Cognitive Science and two more out of: PHIL 431 History of Philosophy (Kant), PHIL 433 Moral Philosophy (Punishment), and MATH 441 Computability Theory. In the second semester I would do PHIL 463 Contemporary Philosophy (non-existence), plus choices from PHIL 439 Formal Logic, PHIL 458 Philosophy of Mathematics, and HAPS 401 Philosophy of Science.

Actually, Otago might be worth looking at too. They're a pretty small department, but look well suited to what I'm looking for. There I could do philosophy of science with Alan Musgrave (PHIL 308), metaphysics of modality with Josh Parsons (PHIL 459), would hopefully get one of the above as supervisor for my honours thesis, and have my other course(s) be the interesting-sounding ones on advanced ethics and/or advanced metaphysics. So much metaphysics! It would be wonderful.

Otago's main disadvantage is the lack of any philosophy of mind (for history of philosophy I could sit in on Charles Pigden's 300-level course). Plus financial concerns, as my current scholarship probably won't follow me around the country. But I guess that's what student loans are for.

Any advice is welcome, though obviously I can't promise to give great weight to random blog comments!


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Good vs Praiseworthy - need more? Yeah, right.

There's a clear distinction between being good or bad, on the one hand, and being praiseworthy or blameworthy, on the other. This can be seen in any cases where the evidence is misleading. (Clayton discusses some examples here.) If some action was overwhelmingly likely to be harmful, but through a stroke of luck just happened to have beneficial consequences, then it's good (or "morally fortunate") that you so acted, but you're blameworthy nonetheless. It is appropriate to apply social censure because you need to be discouraged from acting similarly in the future, given that next time you probably won't be so lucky. Anyway, I hope this distinction is clear enough, so I'll move right along.

What I'm wondering about is whether there's really anything much more we can say by way of making ethical distinctions. In particular, can we identify a distinct concept of what is morally "right", or what a person "ought" to do? If not, and the good vs praiseworthy distinction is all we've got to play with, then does anything substantive rest on which category we choose to align the word "right" with? Or is it a merely terminological dispute? I mean, presumably everyone agrees that it's better when good things happen, but that people should be blamed when they perform blameworthy actions, so what is there left to say? What extra work is the word "right" doing for us?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Traversing the Infinite

Common sense would have us believe that you cannot travel an infinite distance in a finite amount of time. But do we actually have any good reasons to think that this is logically (rather than merely physically) impossible? On the contrary, the sort of exponential acceleration one imagines in accelerating Turing machines would seem to allow for the possibility of infinite traversals.

The idea is seen most simply in Zeno's paradox. Zeno taught us that any movement necessarily traverses an infinite number of spatial intervals (first half the distance, then half the remainder, then half of the new remainder, ad infinitum). But that's no problem, because the time it takes to traverse each interval is "accelerating" in the sense mentioned above - each interval will be traversed in half the time of the previous one. If we're travelling at a constant speed, and cross half the distance in one minute, then we will reach our destination after two minutes. The time it takes to traverse each of the intervals follows the pattern: {1, 1/2, 1/4, ... 1/(2^n) ...} which sums to 2. The paradox only gets off the ground if we make the false assumption that an infinite series cannot yield a finite sum. Contrary to Zeno, movement is possible after all. (What a relief!)

In the above example, we achieved the required 'acceleration' by travelling at a constant speed across decreasing distances. (Recall that each spatial interval was half the length of the one that went before.) But we could achieve the same effect by increasing our speed across constant distances. So let's take the infinite distance we want to traverse, and break it up into (infinitely many) 1 metre intervals. Suppose I am accelerating in such a way that it takes me 1 minute to cross the first metre, 1/2 to cross the 2nd, 1/4 for the third, and so on, in general taking 1/(2^n) minutes to travel the (n+1)th metre. After two minutes, I would be finished, having travelled an infinite distance in that time.

So contrary to common sense (and the old post at Mathetes that inspired this one), it seems logically possible to traverse the infinite. Any objections?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Time to review the year's courses. They were overall much better than last year's, I'm happy to say. Long may this trend continue ;)

First Semester:

PSYC 208: Cognition - A bit dry, but I'd say the content was important enough to make it a worthwhile course nonetheless. (And I like how they acknowledged my coming top of the class. Philosophy courses never do that. Perhaps they're trying to be "egalitarian" instead, I don't know.)

PHIL 236: Ethics - An outstanding course, highly recommended. Carolyn's a wonderful lecturer, and the content (meta-ethics) is intrinsically fascinating. [Highlights: "Why Be Moral?" essay, and learning about Hare's two-level utilitarianism.]

PHIL 317: Contemporary Political Philosophy - This was a great course too, with very wide-ranging and important content. Pity I only got an 'A' though, that was unreasonably harsh marking, IMO, I thought I did better than that. Ah well. [Highlights: all the basic income stuff, and smashing libertarians into itsy bitsy little pieces.]

Second Semester:

PHIL 238: Cognition - Average. Some interesting content, though the lectures weren't especially engaging. Suffered from being a 200-level course, I would have liked some more advanced content. Having said that, I found some of it quite difficult to get a firm grip on (by my standards, I mean; I don't imagine it would have any discernible impact on graded assessment). As a result, I put an insane amount of work into my first essay, though it fortunately paid off, with the lecturer giving extraordinarily high praise and a 100% grade in consequence. To be honest, I still thought my grasp of the topic was a tad slippery even after all that research. Philosophy of biology is weird.

PHIL 305: Philosophical Logic - Wonderful course! Paradoxes make for fascinating content, the student seminars were fun and engaging, and Doug Campbell's lectures on 'induction machines' were clear, original, and extremely interesting.

PHIL 471: Aspects of Rationality (honours paper taken as a 300-level special topic) - Very challenging. Elicited what is probably my best technical work to date. It was neat to have John Broome as guest lecturer for half the course. Some of the content was a little on the dry side, and I would have liked to see a greater focus on foundational questions in normativity, rather than assuming from the start that there are normatively-binding objective 'reasons'. But such is the state of the field these days. Highlights were my two essays: Reasons for Belief, and - especially - Ought we to be rational?

MATH 243: Analysis - Not so good. Classes were spent scribbling down theorems and proofs at breakneck speed. I don't know what they expect us to learn from that. In my opinion, there are two ways maths ought to be taught:

(1) Conceptually. For example, when you introduce a proof of something called the "completeness of the real numbers", stop and explain what this means, and what its broader significance to mathematics is. Think of it as philosophy of maths, the goal being to improve students' understanding of mathematics. This is especially appropriate for topics as foundational as those covered in this course (limits, sequences, series, functions, etc.), which was essentially about the foundations of calculus.

(2) Methodologically. Teach students how to do maths. Use plenty of examples, show us helpful techniques and heuristics for tackling problems and constructing proofs.

A mix of the two would be ideal. But whatever you do, do not opt for the (3) cramming in as much content as you can approach. It is utterly worthless. Students will hate every minute of it, remember just enough to fool the examiners, and then promptly forget it all. At least, that's what I did.

Also, assessment was very imbalanced. I got practically full marks for all the assignments, but couldn't even finish the exam. It asked far too much for just two hours. I was very happy to get an 'A' in the end; after that exam, I was expecting worse for once! Anyway, if anyone from Canterbury is reading this, I don't recommend taking this course for interest (though you'll probably need it if you plan to major in maths).

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Positive Atheism: Ethical Stability

PZ Myers recently called for more positive posts about atheism, rather than purely negative ones slamming religion. Of course, there are all the obvious points about epistemic virtue, basing ones beliefs on evidence, and so on. But I think a more interesting and provocative topic concerns the superiority of an atheistic approach to ethics. An atheistic ethics tends to allow for a deeper respect for humanity, and one that is not contingent on extraneous facts about divine favour or our metaphysical makeup.

For a point of contrast, consider this creationist quote (via Pharyngula):
If man is an animal, the Constitution was written by animals and for animals. This preposterous conclusion destroys the Constitution. The Aguillard Humanists leave us with no Constitution and no constitutional rights of any kind if they allow us to teach only that man is an animal.

I've previously discussed the fallacy which underlies this sort of thinking. But I'd like to add: an ethical system which rests upon the foundation of a magical spark (or whatever they think it is that makes us not animals) is a vulnerable ethical system indeed. An atheistic ethics has no such vulnerability: it begins by recognizing the value of all human beings (and perhaps some non-human ones too), avoiding the folly of making this value rest upon contingencies that might well turn out to be false.

Humans have value, period. If God exists, that's fine, it doesn't change the fact that we have value in ourselves. And if he doesn't exist, then again, that's no great problem. Atheistic ethics thus has a stability and strength in its foundations that sets it apart from theistic approaches. By making morality depend on God, you make it weaker. Morality becomes contingent on the question whether God exists. If he doesn't -- as well might be the case -- then you're screwed.

Further, conditionalizing our value in such a way is inherently disrespectful to humanity, suggesting that people have no real value in themselves, and wouldn't deserve your compassion unless God added that extra magic spark to make it worth your while. Such a view strikes me as morally bankrupt and utterly repugnant, especially compared to the more "unconditional" value bestowed by a humanistic ethics.

Often theists say that without the threat of divine punishment, we'd have no reason to be moral. But that just shows that they were never really moral to begin with. (There's nothing particularly virtuous about refraining from murder solely because of your fear that you'll get caught. The truly virtuous person wouldn't even want to do evil in the first place.) A rationalistic ethics is not so vulnerable to contingencies, as its normative force persists whether one is likely to face divine judgment or not. This is clearly preferable, as we shouldn't want an ethical system which would lose all force the moment one starts to question the existence of God (as all inquisitive people inevitably do at some point). A well-functioning society requires the prevailing morality to have a stronger foundation than that, and this is precisely what an atheistic ethics can provide. (And avoiding arbitrariness is surely another point in its favour.)

AAPC Summary: Part II

Continuing from Part I...

Alan Hajek introduced the Pasadena Paradox, which arises because the expected value of a 'Pasadena game' is given by a conditionally convergent series, and thus the terms can be rearranged to yield any sum whatsoever. In the absence of any reason to privilege any particular ordering of the terms, we are left with a perfectly well-defined game (with well-defined payoffs) that has no expected value. So decision theory can't tell us how much we should be willing to pay in order to play this game, or, say, whether to accept if offered a million dollars to give it a go. Very puzzling.

An interesting distinction Hajek raised was between "undefined" terms, e.g. 1/0, for which there can be no possible value, as opposed to cases where there is "no fact of the matter" (NFM), but perhaps because they can amount to any value. The latter cases are slightly less troublesome, as they allow for supervaluation. For example, if someone offers you a choice between (i) the Pasadena game or (ii) the Pasadena game plus $100, then clearly the latter choice is preferable. We can make sense of this because whatever ordering of the terms you choose, (i) will then have an expected value of x (for any real x, depending on the ordering you chose), whereas (ii) will have the greater expected value of x+100. But nothing like this works for undefined terms. There's no sense to be given to the claim that 1/0 + 100 is any more than 1/0. Undefined terms are completely incommensurable, because they can't be assigned any value at all, so there's nothing to compare. NFM terms, by contrast, can be assigned any value whatsoever, so you can make the comparison for each particular case and then supervaluate to the general (NFM) case. I thought that was kinda neat.

I've already blogged about Lauren's talk on epistemic defeaters, Adrian Walsh on thought experiments, and Heather Dyke on the Representational Fallacy.

Charles Pigden gave a fun talk in defence of conspiracy theories. He pointed out that many people do in fact conspire so it is unreasonable to dismiss a theory just because it makes claims of a conspiracy. Al Qaeda conspired to carry out the 9/11 attacks. We all accept this conspiracy theory. Bush, Blair & co. previously held to a conspiracy theory about why inspectors could find no WMD in Iraq (they thought Saddam was conspiring to hide them). Turns out they were wrong, but I doubt they would have been swayed at the time by someone pointing out that they were holding to a (shock horror) conspiracy theory. Indeed, it seems odd to even label it as such. Typical usage of the term "conspiracy theory" is usually reserved for theories which allege conspiracy on the part of Western governments. Yet history tells us that Western governments are not always ethical or trustworthy, and have been known to conspire against their enemies, so again, it isn't clear why "conspiracy theories" are necessarily illegitimate.

Emily Gill offered a "response-dependent" (or dispositional) theory of explanation, suggesting that S explains D iff epistemically virtuous agents would judge that S explains D. One oddity about this is that it collapses the distinction between true and apparent explanations, making it impossible to be faultlessly mistaken in one's judgment whether S explains D. I guess the sense of "explanation" she had in mind is the more subjective one, perhaps tied to the notion of a hypothesis or what I would call a possible explanation of the phenomenon. But my linguistic intuitions are pulled towards a more objective or factive sense of the word, whereby "S explains D" entails "D because S". Explanations provide "reasons why", and as I understand it, "S explains D" means that S is in fact a reason why D occurred, and not merely that S could or would (counterfactually) be a reason why D. On my view, false (attempted) explanations are no explanation at all. Put another way, not all possible explanations are actual explanations.

Matthew Minehan tackled the intersection of ethics with metaphysics. It was an interesting and novel approach, though I found his arguments unconvincing. First he argued that consequentialism has a "supervenience problem", because two identical actions might have different moral status depending on their disparate consequences. But the obvious response for the consequentialist is to point out that the two actions actually have different non-moral properties too. For example, one might have the property of 'producing more happiness than any available alternative action', when the other does not. Such differences are what explains the moral difference in the actions.

Minehan's other main argument was that consequentialism collapses into ethical egoism under trope theory. Consequentialism states that we should maximize goodness, which is unproblematic if 'goodness' is a universal shared by all lives. But if each 'goodness' is an abstract particular (trope) then (the argument goes) 'goodness' is a different thing for each person, and consequentialism will just tell us to maximize that particular which is 'goodness' for us. But this doesn't follow. There's no reason why consequentialism couldn't simply tell us to give moral consideration to all the particular 'goodness' tropes (in relation to their 'weight'), without regard for whose they are.

Finally, Dave Chalmers argued that some ontological questions (e.g. whether there are mereological sums of arbitrary objects) might not have any determinate answers. He distinguished between "ordinary" and "ontologial" assertions, mirroring Carnap's internal/external distinction. For example, we might ordinarily say that Santa lives at the North Pole (speaking within the Christmas mythology framework), or that Santa doesn't exist (within the framework of actual concrete objects), but philosophers might argue about whether fictional beings exist (perhaps abstractly) in some 'absolute' sense.

Now, the problem for ontology is that the world might not come with a built-in "absolute domain" which exhaustively specifies all the objects in the world. And if not, then we can't apply the existential quantifier to it, or make existence claims with determinate truth values. Instead, Chalmers suggests, we need to add a "furnishing function" which maps from worlds to domains. Some of these will be 'inadmissible' (for whatever reason), but perhaps there are multiple 'admissible' functions that could associate our world with a domain. If so, then supervaluation might yield at least some determinate answers (say, if no admissibly furnished worlds contain concrete unicorns, then we can hold "concrete unicorns exist" to be determinately false). But in other cases the answer may be indeterminate, e.g. if one admissibly furnished world contains numbers, and another doesn't, then there's simply no fact of the matter whether numbers exist in our bare world. Interesting stuff.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Intuitions and Framing Thought Experiments

I really enjoyed Adrian Walsh's AAPC talk on thought experiments in applied ethics. He identified four general purposes for employing a thought experiment: as a counterexample to a universal claim; as an "intuition pump" to support a general claim; as a "principle cleaver", clarifying distinctions by separating variables that are commonly conflated in actual situations; and "reimagining" stale debates. Walsh suggested that "modally bizarre" examples are not intrinsically suspect. Rather, what matters is that it is used appropriately in the broader argument.

For example, suppose one argues that eating meat is (actually) wrong because it involves killing animals. Someone might respond that we can imagine futuristic scenarios where meat is grown in a vat, so no animals need be killed. But that thought experiment is irrelevant to the present argument. Sure, it shows that meat-eating is not necessarily wrong, but that wasn't the question at issue. The fact is that in the actual case it does involve killing, so imagining some other situation is merely changing the subject, and does nothing to show that meat-eating is not wrong in our actual circumstances. But the problem is one of relevance, not modal distance.

The obvious worry about bizarre cases is that they might over-stretch our intuitive competence. If our intuitions are reliable at all, perhaps it's because they've been honed by our experiences, producing a kind of philosophical "know how". But while this might yield reliable judgments for familiar scenarios, it's (even) less clear whether we are competant at making correct intuitive judgments in unfamiliar - and sometimes downright bizarre - circumstances. What reason do we have to trust our intuitions in such cases? (Or any cases, for that matter?) A pity I didn't think to raise these issues at the time.

I suppose an alternative view might see our intuitive judgments as arising from internalized general principles that are universally applicable, and thus should apply just as well to novel scenarios as familiar ones. Which picture do you think is more plausible? Are there other possible accounts that I've missed?

Anyway, back to the talk, one interesting issue that came out in comments was the importance of framing effects. Consider, for example, the Kahneman & Tversky experiments described here. One and the same scenario elicits different (conflicting) intuitions depending on how it is described. Assuming we reject ethical contextualism, one of these intuitions must be mistaken. So that would seem to cast doubt on their reliability. This is most obviously problematic for general "intuition pumps", but I think it's also a problem for 'counterexample' uses. If we have no determinate intuition about a scenario, then it's no longer clear that it can constitute a counterexample. Looking at it one way, you'll think that it does, but then seen from the other perspective you'll change your mind and think the universal claim holds true of this case too after all. When I brought up this point in comments Walsh wanted to deny this, and so had to "bite the bullet" and say that reframed descriptions were actually of different scenarios. But that seems most implausible to me.

Incidentally, in Weatherson's fascinating recent post on absolutism and uncertainty, he notes that "where we set the 'zero-point' or status quo makes a big difference for how we act." But is there really any fact of the matter about what the 'default' outcome is? The K&T case linked above would seem to suggest that this is merely a difference in our descriptions, not in reality. Whether you say that 400/600 will die, or that 200/600 will be saved, you describe one and the same fact. But the descriptions differ in their implied baseline, or what they convey as being "the natural progression of things". Could there be a metaphysical fact of the matter regarding where the true baseline lies? What sort of fact could this be, that would tell us whether a survivor was saved from the jaws of death, or whether it was simply a matter of death failing to cut his life tragically short? When faced with branching possibilities, how can we say that one is the "default" path of fate, and the other some kind of unnatural "diversion"? (But if we can't do this, then what is our basis for caring more about "losses" than "forfeited gains"? Doesn't this distinction require a baseline?)

Comment Spam

The spammers seem to have figured out how to post comments using my old custom comments form, so I've had to change back to the standard Blogger comments with word verification. Most inconvenient.

Blogger ought to allow individual bloggers to create a "whitelist" of registered Blogger users who are "approved" to post comments to the blog without requiring word verification. At the very least, it should be able to recognize the owner of the blog (perhaps the same way it does when inserting 'delete' and 'quick-edit' icons for our eyes only) so we don't have to continually verify ourselves. The current situation is just silly. My own blog ought to know that I'm not a spammer! And it would be nice if I could also tell it that certain other users aren't spammers either.

If you like the "word-verification whitelist" idea, spread the word and write to Blogger with this feature request. If enough people ask about it, they might at least look into the possibility.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

100 000

This blog had its 100,000th visitor this morning. Its growth rate continues to pleasantly surprise me. I started in March 2004, and took till mid-December to reach 10k. Late February 2005 saw the 20,000th visitor. Then 50k was passed in mid-July. And all that's been doubled in just five more months. I'm currently averaging over 400 hits per day (or 700+ page views), though it fluctuates a bit depending on incoming links. It'd be neat to see that average raised over 500 next year, though I don't expect to get much further than that, given my fairly narrow target audience.

Visitor stats are fairly trivial in any case. A more interesting measure would be number and quality of comments and replies, which are more difficult to track. But my general impression is that these have continued to improve also, with a handful of (semi-) regular readers making the bulk of the contributions. My thanks go out to them. (You know who you are.)

But enough navel-gazing. Back to the philosophy...


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Philosophers' Carnival #23

The 23rd Philosophers' Carnival is now up at Right Reason, featuring my "armchair activism" and Rad Geek's guest post on self-referential paradoxes.

Faced with an abundance of quality submissions, Max kept this edition down to a cosy size, though a couple of other recent philosophy blog posts I've especially liked can be found on my nominations page.

Political Stereotype Quiz

Like Brandon, I'm Green...

Which political sterotype are you?

Green - You believe that small economic units should control the goods, and that the government should be permissive of "victimless crimes," respectful of civil liberties and very strict towards big business. You also believe in either a socialist tax structure or more power to local communities. You think that environmental policies should be written into law. Your historical role model is Ralph Nader.
Take this quiz

Saturday, December 10, 2005

AAPC Summary: Part I

A few thoughts on some of the AAPC talks I went to...

David Ward's Presidential Address on Saturday evening offered an analysis of 'fun' as 'amusement born of rational detachment'. We may enjoy becoming engaged in more serious activities, but a game isn't really "fun" (in the playful sense) unless we aren't too heavily invested in the outcome. To enable such detachment, Ward suggested that an element of chance or randomness is important, to provide an excuse for losing.

Sunday began with Justine Kingsbury and Tim Dare arguing that differential distributions of the burden of proof between disputants in rational discourse are generally unwarranted. Most apparent cases to the contrary (e.g. where someone postulates entities unnecessarily, such as ghosts or deities) are simply ones where the one side already has reasons on their side (say, reasons of parsimony, or the general success of the naturalistic worldview), rather than being a case where one side was genuinely the "default" position in the sense of not needing the weight of (even existing) reasons to support it. Other cases, where we appeal to "common sense" - say against the radical skeptic - may be more a matter of bailing out of the debate, rather than engaging the opposition but demanding stronger reasons of them. As a couple of us pointed out in quesiton time, this methodological position (that unequal BoPs are unwarranted) seems to beg the question against epistemological conservatism (the view that there is a presupposition in favour of our existing beliefs, or "common sense"). But perhaps that's no great loss.

Canterbury's own Cynthia MacDonald spoke about introspection. An interesting question there is whether (some of) our introspective beliefs are somehow indubitable, infallible, or incorrigible. It touches on issues of subjectivity which I've tackled before. For example, it seems that any sincere utterance of "It seems to me that X" couldn't possibly be false. But perhaps we need to distinguish between actual seemings (the objective version) and seemingly actuals (the subjective version), where only the latter judgments are infallible -- since only there do the judgments themselves constitute the fact. The difference is brought out by imagining a case of memory manipulation. You have a false belief about the way things actually seemed at the time, but it nevertheless truly seems actual to you now.

Next, Otago grad students Charles Boulton and Ian Lawson argued for a metaphysics informed by physics (a project I'm certainly sympathetic to). They focussed on the metaphysics of time in particular, outlining arguments against presentism like the one I've made here. An additional point they made was that, though the presentist can avoid the objection by insisting that there is some privileged or 'absolute' frame of reference which determines "true" simultaneity and thus existence, we have no reason to think that it is our (Earthly) frame. Given all the alternative possibilities, it seems more likely that the presentist would end up having to deny that all the things that seem simultaneous and real from our point of view really are so. (I should add that Charles was generous enough to billet several of us Canterbury students while we were there, and is an all-round great guy.)

More to come...

The Representational Fallacy

Heather Dyke gave a very interesting talk, suggesting that the 'representational fallacy' is the near-ubiquitous mistake of drawing metaphysical conclusions from (merely) semantic facts.

Realists about some entity point to features of our language that seem to commit us to the existence of such entities, whereas nominalists try to rebut this through the method of paraphrase. For example, early B-theorists about time tried to defend themselves against presentism by arguing that tensed sentences are reducible in meaning to tenseless sentences. As Heather put it, "Metaphysical debates are transformed into debates about the meanings of sentences." This seems wrongheaded. To learn about the world we should look to the world, not to our language.

The appropriate response to presentist arguments from tensed language is not to paraphrase our way out, but rather, deny their premise that irreducibly tensed sentences entail that there are tensed facts. Indeed, this is just what the New B-theory of time does, asserting that "The truthmaker for any true tensed sentence is a tenseless fact." It doesn't matter that tense is ineliminable from natural language. (E.g. the sentences U: "The enemy is now approaching." and V: "The enemy [is] approaching simultaneously with U." are presumably made true by one and the same fact -- the tenseless fact of the enemy's approaching at some time t which is also U's time of utterance -- despite their lack of synonymity.)

I think Heather's position basically amounts to a rejection of Quine's (existential quantification) criterion for ontological commitment. She told me that she rejects the indispensability argument for numbers, for example. Though I would like this approach to work, one concern is that it seems somehow dishonest for us to embrace theories which quantify over some entities, and then to go on to deny that any such entities exist. "Reading off" the ontological commitments of our semantics seems fair game -- quantification doesn't come for free. But perhaps I misunderstand? Comments welcome...

Philosophical Prophecies

Scott Hagaman has sought my oracular insight into philosophy's future. Close examination of the ideal form of a palm yields the following foretelling:
Philosophy will face an unprecedented methodological crisis, triggered when a young logician-turned-experimental philosopher publishes a groundbreaking article, 'We Met the Liar and It was Us', relating a survey finding that most people consider surveys to be an unreliable route to philosophical truth. Excited by the possibilities for new forms of self-referentiality, more mainstream philosophers think up elaborate new thought-experiments which pump the intuition that thought experiments are not to be trusted either. Once the novelty wears off, these breakthroughs leave many philosophers feeling lost and betrayed by the logic they long held dear. The next generation all speak French.

In light of future events, I must recognize that the above prophecy is but one text among others, and the platonic form of a palm is open to many interpretations. Feel free to add your own.


Friday, December 09, 2005

Contingent Numbers

While in Dunedin I got a chance to discuss some philosophy of mathematics with Mark Colyvan and Charles Pigden. Charles argued that, at best, numbers are merely contingent objects, and ones with causal powers besides! I'll make a rough attempt at reconstructing the argument...

First suppose that the only decent argument for realism about numbers is Quine's indispensibility argument. Since our best scientific theories quantify over numbers, this presents us with an ontological commitment to such entities. But Hartry Field, in Science Without Numbers, has successfully reformulated Newtonian physics without quantifying over numbers. That is, numbers are dispensible in a Newtonian universe. So we have no reason to think that they really exist there. We can opt for some form of nominalism or fictionalism about numbers instead.

Of course, our universe is not a Newtonian universe, so where does that leave us? Well, there are two possibilities. Either numbers are dispensible in our universe too, or else they are not. If they are, then nominalism wins. So let's instead suppose that numbers really are indispensible to our science. This is still not particularly good news for the Platonist. After all, it is a merely contingent fact about our natural laws that numbers play an indispensible role. Further, it might be thought that numbers play some sort of weird causal role, since, after all, we learnt about them empirically, by learning that we are in an Einsteinian universe rather than a Newtonian one. If numbers are required to explain how the one universe works but not the other, then they must be doing something in the former. And something is a terribly odd thing for numbers to do.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Many thanks to Charles and Neil for keeping this blog updated with interesting content over the last week. I've archived their posts under the Guests and Columns category for future reference. If you've enjoyed their guest posts, be sure to check out their home blogs (linked in the names above).

The next Philosophers' Carnival is fast approaching. Get your entries in today or tomorrow!

The conference was great fun -- lots of interesting discussion (some of which I hope to blog about soon) and friendly people. I was stoked that Dave Chalmers remembered my name, though Alex later pointed out that I was wearing a name tag ;)

Update: I've done some renovating:

1) Archives turned into a drop-down menu using this hack.

2) Expandable posts made genuinely expandable (i.e. remaining on the main page) using this hack.

3) A rough automated comments feed is now available here, though I don't yet know how reliable it is.

4) Category tags displayed in sidebar menu using this hack. Note that I've removed the old category links, though they can be found under the "OldCategories" option in the new menu.

Finally, you may have noticed that Google's pay-per-click ads are now appearing on the main page too. I hope it doesn't irritate regular readers too much -- as previously noted, Firefox users can always block them out.


If the title of this guest post is true, then you should read it.

[By Charles Johnson]

Here's one of the few canonical philosophical puzzles that I had learned about by the age of five. What's the truth-value of the following statement?

(L) This statement (L) is false.

The problem, of course, is that if (L) is true then it's false, and if (L) is false then it's true. Thus, any theory of truth that assigns a truth-value to (L) is internally contradictory, since the theory will (inter alia) include the contradictory truth-ascription:

(TL) L is true if and only if L is false.

Since there are no true contradictions, a theory of truth must not assign any truth-value to (L) at all. But how do you doing it? If a statement hasn't got a truth-value, then the usual take is that they are, in some respect, nonsense; that is, they fail to make an assertion -- just as "Cat mat on the sat the" fails to make an assertion. The canonical approach to (L) in the 20th century has been to try to come up with some principled means of ruling (L) out of the language by means of setting up the right structure of rules beforehand (just as you can point to the preexisting rules of syntax to show that "Cat mat on the sat the" doesn't amount to a complete sentence). The most famous attempt, and the inspiration of many of the subsequent attempts, has been Tarski's attempt to sidestep the Liar Paradox by means of segmenting language into object-language and meta-language layers. The idea being that, if you do this assiduously, you can avoid self-referential paradoxes because self-reference won't be possible in languages whose sentences can be ascribed truth-values; because they can only be ascribed truth-values within a meta-language that contains the names of the object language's sentences and truth-predicates for those sentences. I have a lot of problems with this approach; a full explanation of them is something that I ought to spell out (indeed, have spelled out) elsewhere. But here's a quick gloss of one of the reasons: Tarski and the people inspired by him started setting up ex ante rules to try to rule out self-referential sentences because it's self-reference that makes the Liar Paradox paradoxical (and that makes for similar paradoxes in similar sentences; exercise for the reader: show how "If this sentence is true, then God exists" is both necessarily true and strictly entails the existence of God). But there's an obvious and general problem for the method: there are self-referential sentences which are unparadoxical, and indeed self-referential sentences which are true. Here's an example which may or may not cause trouble for Tarskian theories, depending on the details:

(E) This sentence (E) is in English.

(E) is truth-valuable; and in fact it is true. (If, on the other hand, it had said "This sentence is in French," it would have been false.) Now, this may cause trouble for the Tarskian method and it may not, depending on the details of a particular account. (Sometimes people want to ban all self-referential sentences; sometimes they are more careful and claim that object languages might be able to name their own sentences but only so long as they don't contain the truth-predicates for their own language.) But even if (E) is allowed, you haven't solved the problem. There are plenty of self-referential truth-ascribing sentences that aren't paradoxical, too. Here's one:

(EM) Either this sentence (EM) is true, or this sentence (EM) is false.

Unlike (L), this causes no logical paradoxes. If you suppose that it's false, that means that it turns out to be true -- since the second disjunct, "this sentence (EM) is false" turns out to be true; meaning that it cannot be false. But it *can* be true, without contradiction. So it has to be true, if it has any truth-value at all. That shouldn't be surprising; it's an instance of the law of the excluded middle, and all instances of the law of the excluded middle are true.

Now, you might think that (EM)'s relationship to ordinary talk is attenuated enough, and the reasons for thinking it unparadoxical are technical enough, that it might be an acceptable loss if some other technical stuff that saves us from (L) happens to rule out (EM) too. I'd be inclined to agree, except that (EM) isn't the only example I had up my sleeve, either. Here's another. In the Prologue to the Travels, Marco Polo wrote,

We will set down things seen as seen, things heard as heard, so that our book may be an accurate record, free from any sort of fabrication. And all who read this book or hear it may do so with full confidence, because it contains nothing but the truth.

Let M be the conjunction of all the assertions that Marco Polo makes in his book. The book contains nothing but the truth if and only if M is true, but that the book contains nothing but the truth is one of the many assertions in the book, so "M is true" is one of the conjuncts of M. Thus:

(M) This conjunction (M) is true, and Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road to Cathay, and served in the court of the Great Khan, and observed the barbarous customs of lesser Armenia, and ... and ... and ....

But it's either true or false that Marco Polo's book contains nothing but the truth; that assertion is a standard bit of understood language (passages just like it are a near-universal feature of traveler's tales, or other extraordinary stories where the author feels the need to reassure you that she's not making things up). If your theory of language throws it out as nonsense, then your "theory of language" needs to be thrown out, on the grounds that it's not semantically serious. (Whatever it's a theory of may be interesting, but it's something other than language as it actually exists.)

Now, like Polo, I may have been fudging just a bit in what I said. I suggested that M isn't paradoxical; I don't think it is, but there is a way to make it seem paradoxical. Lots of readers have doubted that Polo was telling the truth; some of them, for example, were unimpressed by the evidence that he had ever served in the court of the Great Khan; others weren't so sure about the tales of dog-headed men or giant birds that consumed elephants. Whatever the case, they believed that Marco Polo made at least two false assertions in his book: (1) the claim about his journeys that they doubted, and (2) the claim that his book contained nothing but the truth. Call these the normal skeptics. I'm sure there were also a few readers (however credulous they would have to have been), who believed that the Travels really did contain nothing but the truth; that is, that there were no false assertions in the book, including the assertion that the book contained no false assertions. Call these the normal believers. But now imagine a third kind of reader, a perverse skeptic -- a philosopher, of course -- who noticed that you could gloss the contents of the book as M, and who decided that she believed everything that Polo said in the book about his journeys, from the customs of lesser Armenia to the domains of the Great Khan to the giant birds. She believes everything in the book, except ... there is one assertion that she thinks is false -- that is, (1) the assertion that everything in the book is true, and nothing else.

There are a couple of different ways that you could approach the difficulty. One way is to point out that the perverse skeptic really is being perverse. That's just not how you can sensibly read the book. Either you think that nothing in the book is false, or you think that at least two things are; the assurance of truthfulness just can't be a candidate for falseness until something else has been shown false. But if you list the truth-conditions of M, then "M is true" is one among them, and it's hard to see how you could stop the perverse skeptic from going down the list and picking that one as the only one to be false. Certainly Polo doesn't say "The rest of the book besides this sentence contains nothing but the truth." And given that he did say what he did, I'd be hard put to say that "this book contains nothing but the truth" isn't one of the untruths denied by the sentence, if something else in the book is false.

Another way to approach it is this: you can imagine an argument between the normal skeptic and the normal believer; whether or not one ever managed to convince the other in the end, you can in principle identify the sorts of reasons that they might offer to try to determine whether Polo really did tell the truth about the birds, or about the Khan, or..., and you can say what things would be like if one or the other is true. But what kind of argument could the normal believer and the perverse skeptic have? How would one convince the other? Or, to take it beyond the merely psychological point to the epistemological point, what kind of reasons could the normal believer possibly give to the perverse skeptic to give up the belief that "this book contains nothing but the truth" is false? (She can't point to all the true statements about his journey; the perverse skeptic already believes in those.) Or, to take it beyond the epistemological point to the ontological point: what sort of truth-makers could even in principle determine whether the normal believer or the perverse skeptic is in the right?

So there is a problem with M, to be sure. But the problem is not the same as the problem posed by L: there's no logical contradiction involved, so its self-referentiality sets off no logical explosions. And the solution can't be the same either: the radical move of abandoning the sentence as meaningless works with (L), where there's just no right way to take it, but it doesn't help us out with (M), where there obviously is a right way to take it (i.e., as the normal readers take it, and not as the perverse reader takes it).

So there has to be some right way to go about ascribing a truth-value to (M) (and also (E)). Whatever it is, it may very well also explain how we can ascribe a truth-value to (EM). But it certainly cannot also mean that we try to ascribe a truth-value to (L). What is it? Is there some kind of principled and motivated general rule that we can add to our logical grammar, so as to get M and E and maybe EM but no L? If so, what in the world would it be? If not, then what do we do?

(I have my own answers; for the details, you can look up "Sentences That Can't Be Said" in the upcoming issue of Southwest Philosophy Review. Or contact me if you're interested enough to want a copy of the essay. But I want to pose the puzzle and see what y'all think about it as it stands.)

Update 2005-12-08: I fixed a minor error in phrasing. Thanks to Blar for pointing it out in comments.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The ends in the world as we know it

[By Charles Johnson]

My previous guest post on the argument from marginal cases got a number of provocative comments that I’d like to reply to; but I’m having some baffling and frustrating trouble with the comment form. So until I’ve gotten that sorted out, I’ll use this space to expand on one of the points that I wanted to make anyway: the use that my argument makes of Michael Thompson’s notion of “aristotelian categoricals,” such as “The domestic cat has four legs and a soft coat of fur” or “Humans walk on two legs” or (what’s important for the argument) “Humans are rational creatures.”

Here’s an attempted gloss of the argument that may express things more clearly than I did at first. I used Thompson’s notion to argue that appeals to species normality can do more than ethical vegetarians (such as James Rachels) seem to think that they can do, since they seem to take the species normality argument to amount to nothing more than an arbitrary appeal to the pure Cambridge relation of being a member of the same taxon as other members who are rational. Of course that has precious little ethical bearing by itself, but what I suggested is that there’s a much more charitable reading of the species-normality appeal on offer, in light of Thompson’s aristotelian categoricals. It’s not that “Humans are rational creatures” asserts that all humans are rational (as might have been said before “marginal cases” were introduced as a counterexample), or that it asserts “many (most) humans are rational creatures” (as Rachels and others seem to have misinterpreted it). Rather, “humans are rational creatures” asserts a teleological fact, about the form of life that is proper to creatures of the human kind, to the effect that each individual human is supposed to be able to exercise certain forms of rationality just as we are supposed to have two legs and cats are supposed to have four. I suggested that this makes an important difference, and the difference that it makes might help (1) explain the special moral standing that anti-vegetarians attribute to individual “marginal case” humans but not to individual normal animals, and (2) undermine Rachels’ and others’ attempt to offer hypothetical animals with freak intelligence as a counterexample. For the details, see the post.

Anyway, this brings me to a couple of comments by Alex. First:

Firstly, why does the fact that the paradigm cases of an object-type have a certain property commit us to saying that all objects of that type have that property? (e.g because paradigmatic humans are morally relevant, all humans are morally relevant) - won’t this commit you to (for example) the idea that all humans have the property of ‘having two arms’ because paradigmatic humans do?

The best response here is just a clarification of the argument. That you shouldn’t butcher and eat infants, or the severely mentally retarded, or the comatose, is one of the unargued premises of all the arguments, shared between by imaginary interlocutors. I don’t think it needs argument; it’s one of the background conditions of having a reasonable theory of ethics that you believe this, not something that a theory of ethics should have to convince you of.

What does need argument is the claim that there’s a difference between “marginal case” humans and normal animals that would explain extending that moral standing to the humans while denying it to the animals. The argument for that isn’t based on a general principle that “Paradigmatic humans have P” entails “All humans have P.” (I freely concede that for any reasonable candidate for the morally relevant sort of rationality, there will be many humans in abnormal or transitory circumstances who don’t have it.) The inference that I do want to endorse is that if “the adult human has P” is true as an aristotelian categorical, then “all humans have a natural capacity for P” is true as a universal generalization (for some important sense of the phrase “natural capacity”). Not all humans have two arms, but all humans do have the natural capacity (in some sense) for having two arms; that’s why armlessness is a tragedy for you but not for a trout, and that’s why a human with the intelligence of a cow is thought of as having a profound disability, but a cow with the intelligence of a cow is not: because the one is a case of having a rational faculty that’s damaged (perhaps irreparably), while the other is a case of not having any rational faculty at all.

Of course, at best this only explains more fully what the appeal to aristotelian categoricals and teleological talk about the human form of life is supposed to do. Which brings us to Alex’s second remark:

But the notion of “aristotelian categoricals”/”telos” conflicts wildly with a modern scientific worldview, and we can hardly justify redeeming it because it achieves some cuddly ethical conclusions. (Second key question) Don’t you have a give an independent reason to believe in these categoricals first, and then you may be entitled to refer to them to establish conclusions elsewhere.

… to which there are a couple of things to say.

First, I didn’t intend my post to provide compelling reasons to reject the ethical vegetarian position (indeed, I accept a form of it, so a fortiori I don’t think there are compelling reasons to reject all forms of it). But I do think that the arguments in favor of the position aren’t as good as they could be, and that the devotion that nearly all ethical vegetarians show to the argument from marginal cases is misguided. One of my reasons for thinking that is that I think there are alternatives on offer that start from philosophical premises that most ethical vegetarians simply haven’t (yet) demonstrated an understanding of. Maybe those premises are wrong (I don’t think they are, but I don’t think they entail the anti-vegetarian conclusion, either), but ethical vegetarians will have to recognize the premises and give reasons to doubt them, or to doubt the inference drawn from them, before any progress will have been made. A full explanation and defense of the independent reasons for Thompson’s claims is better found in Thompson’s essay (there’s also a good discussion in Philippa Foot’s book Natural Goodness), and was in any case beyond the scope of the post.

Second, though, I do hope to use the rest of this post to take up the subject anew, and offer at least a sketch for the defense of Thompson’s claims about “aristotelian categoricals” and about the sort of teleological talk that go along with them. Partly because I think that something like Thompson’s picture is necessary for any kind of reasonable account of the nature of goodness (and thus for the foundations of any reasonable ethical theory). But the work that aristotelian categoricals will do for you in ethical theory is just a side benefit, not the primary reason for accepting them into our philosophical picture. The primary reason is that statements such as these:

  1. The domestic cat has four legs and a soft coat of fur.

  2. Coyotes hunt small game.

  3. During the mating season, the male emperor penguin warms the egg while the female returns to the sea to feed.

  4. Humans are rational animals.

  5. Humans are the only known animals that use language, but not the only animals that use tools.

… are all both meaningful and true, and commonplace bits of what has sometimes been called “natural history.” But it’s hard — indeed, I think, impossible — to give a good account of what they truly say by squeezing them into any the familiar set of logical quantifiers, whether existential, universal, or statistical. A good analysis of (1)-(5) needs to do at least two things: (i) it needs to be materially adequate (i.e., it needs to provide a gloss that’s true when they are true and false when they are false); and (ii) it needs to be semantically serious (i.e., it needs to provide a gloss of the statements, not some other statements that are considered easier to deal with).

But if you interpret (1) to mean “all domestic cats have four legs and a soft coat of fur,” then your interpretation is not even materially adequate; after all, that’s not true (just ask poor Tibbles, who has been shaved and maimed in a tragic accident). If you interpret it as “some domestic cats,” “many domestic cats,” “most domestic cats,” or even “the overwhelming majority of domestic cats have four legs and a soft coat of fur,” then that will be something true, but it won’t be semantically serious. It doesn’t capture all of what is meant by the categorical statement, and you can see this by considering some parallel cases: some cats are blind, many cats are tabbies, either most cats are male or most cats are female — I don’t know which — and the overwhelming majority of cats are vaccinated against common diseases. But “The domestic cat is blind,” “the domestic cat is a tabby,” “the domestic cat is male,” “the domestic cat is female,” “the domestic cat is vaccinated against common diseases” are all quite obviously false. Material adequacy breaks down in the parallel cases because semantic seriousness wasn’t maintained in the original case.

So how can we understand categoricals like (1)-(5)? Well, you could decide that we can’t, and toss them out as not precise enough for the uses of a logical or scentific language. That, though, would seem to me to be a gross error about the nature of logic and its relation to everyday language, of the sort exposed by Wittgenstein when he said:

F. P. Ramsey once emphasized in conversation with me that logic was a ‘normative science’. I do not know exactly what he had in mind, but it was doubtless closely related to what only dawned on me later: namely, that in philosophy we often compare the use of words with games and calculi which have fixed rules, but cannot say that someone who is using language must be playing such a game. —But if you say that our languages only approximate to such calculi you are standing on the very brink of a misunderstanding. For then it may look as if what we were talking about were an ideal language. As if our logic were, so to speak, a logic for a vacuum. —Whereas logic does not treat of language—or of thought—in the sense in which a natural science treats of a natural phenomenon, and the most that can be said is that we construct ideal languages. But here the word “ideal” is liable to mislead, for it sounds as if these languages were better, more perfect, than our everyday language; and as if it took the logician to shew people at last what a proper sentence looked like. (Philosophical Investigations, § 81)

If we take seriously our responsibility to get everyday language right, rather than discarding it in favor of the will-o’-the-wisp of an “ideal” language, what sorts of understandings might be on offer? Well, Thompson’s suggestion is that we can understand the sorts of natural-historical statements such as (1)-(5) by reference to the role that those traits play in the natural life cycle of that kind of organism, that is, to facts about the form of life that that sort of creature enjoys and the way that that life is supposed to go. We say that the domestic cat has four legs and a soft coat of fur because that’s part of the way that domestic cats live under normal circumstances; having four legs is how they walk and having a soft coat of fur is how they stay warm. There are domestic cats out there that have two or three legs, or are bald; but that is something abnormal about them, due to abnormal circumstances (whether hereditary, or congenital, or acquired in the course of their life). In this case, it’s something that would generally be considered a defect, something wrong with the poor creature; but you can imagine cases (cats that can talk, or cats that can leap four stories) where the extraordinary trait would be preternatural, or better than cats are expected, in the normal course of things, to have.

What’s important is to see how these terms — “natural,” “form of life,” “supposed to go,” “normal,” “abnormal,” etc. — involve us in teleological talk. The fact that conditions are normal or abnormal, that the natural course of events is disrupted or allowed to proceed, are involved with teleological notions, notions of the natural ends that certain sorts of creatures have and the functions that their various distinctive traits serve in realizing those ends. And it’s not immediately obvious whether there is any way that this kind of teleological talk could be reduced to non-teleological talk. (It’s certainly not merely statistical: if all the cats in the world lost their hair through a mysterious virus, that wouldn’t make “domestic cats have a soft coat of fur,” or make baldness normal for the domestic cat. It would mean only that for the time being all cats are abnormal, due to abnormal conditions. Nor will appeals to evolutionary history do, since making sense of evolutionary history already requires you to talk about terms such as species and life-cycle functions such as eating, keeping warm, reproducing, etc., all of which involve you in teleological talk about the roles that each activity serves in the organism’s form of life. And, to ascend up a level of abstraction, if “fitness” isn’t a teleological notion, then what in the world is?)

That brings me to the last of the objections: isn’t Aristotelian teleology just the sort of thing that was rightly expelled from proper natural science in the 16th century? I don’t think, actually, that teleological talk does conflict with a modern scientific worldview — if “a modern scientific worldview” means the worldview presupposed by actual working science. I do recognize that it conflicts with any number of explicit philosophies of science, from early modern mechanism to high logical positivism to the modern day; but, well, so what? There’s good reason to think that it conflicts with them not because teleological language is, in and of itself, anti-scientific, but because the expulsion of teleological language accompanied the remarkable success of two specific branches of science — mechanics and chemistry — that for the past five centuries scientists and philosophers have repeatedly tried to “reform” all the special sciences by imposing standards of language specific to mechanics and chemistry on them. But there’s precious little reason to think the methods or forms of language appropriate to mechanics and chemistry are also what will work best for biology, geology, ecology, paleontology, epidemiology, metereology, tidology, psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, etc. etc. etc. In fact, as I think Thompson convincingly shows, these methodological constraints are distinctly inappropriate for biology (and “natural history” broadly), because teleological talk about life cycles and natural functions is both irreducible to non-teleological terms, and essential to understanding commonplace biological statements about species, their traits, their lives, the organization of their bodies and the operation of their organs or tissues, and indeed the foundational concept of “life” itself.

Of course, I’ve only sketched out the arguments here, and referred to further discussions. I don’t expect this to be a knock-down argument in favor of aristotelian categoricals and their employment in inferring teleological facts. But if you think that you’ve got a way to reduce them to terms without teleological import, or to understand the categoricals without mentioning teleological facts at all, or to do biology while dispensing with both the categoricals and the teleology, well, try me.

What desire is

[By Neil Sinhababu]

My last post was about what desire isn't, necessarily. (Namely, a representational capacity contributing to a reward or punishment signal.) Now I'm going to tell you what necessarily is. I've got a conceptual analysis that offers two conditions on something's being a desire, individually necessary and jointly sufficient. Here goes:

1> If someone desires B, and she occurrently believes that doing some action A can bring about B, she will do A.

2> If someone desires B, at least one of the following four relations between her beliefs regarding B and her hedonic state holds:
a. Increases in the subjective probability of B will cause her some pleasure.
b. Decreases in the subjective probability of B will cause her some displeasure.
c. Vividly imagining B coming about will cause her some pleasure.
d. Vividly imagining a state of affairs incompatible with B will cause her some displeasure.

So that's the analysis. The necessity of 2 is more controversial than the necessity of 1, so let me offer the case that inspires me to include it. It's a case I blogged about some time back:

On another planet, there exist the Neutrals -- intelligent creatures who are exactly like us, except that they are psychologically incapable of ever experiencing pleasure or displeasure. They engage in many motions similar to ours. Like a human, a Neutral would move quickly and suddenly towards his baby if he saw that the baby was about to crawl into a busy street. But while a human father might have an unpleasant experience of fear just as he began to move, a Neutral would not. Though the Neutral's attention would be intensely focused on the baby as he began to move and he would have lots of visual and auditory sensations, he would feel nothing unpleasant at all. Even if, in the future, he imagined what could've happened if he hadn't seen the child in time, he wouldn't feel the unpleasantness of horror in imagining. To an observer, Neutrals are indistinguishable from normal human beings. When you do things to one of them that would make a person laugh or cry, they show the outward behaviors of laughter and crying. But they don't feel the pleasure of laughter or the pain of sadness that we usually do when crying.

There are two questions I like to ask after giving this example: First, do any of the Neutrals' motions count as actions? (This becomes important for assessing questions about the relation between desire and motivation.) Second, (and more importantly for the topic of this post) do any of the Neutrals' mental states count as desires? I'd say that the Neutrals act, but the states motivating them aren't desires. Certainly, the Neutrals have some conative mental state. But I don't want to call this mental state a desire, since desire has to feel a certain way, and this way involves feelings of pleasure and displeasure. There's disagreement on this question, though (see the linked comments). Perhaps the word "desire" expresses two concepts -- one that applies to any old conative state, and one that only applies to states with a certain affective character. In that case, it's the latter concept that I'm analyzing.

Monday, December 05, 2005


The conference is going well, but for now I just have time now to write up a few quick thoughts on one of yesterday's talks. Lauren Ashwell (MIT/Auckland) was discussing the following widely-accepted principle:

(NBD) It is a necessary condition for S to be justified in believing that p that S not believe that her belief that p is unjustified.

This can be formalized as: "B~JBp -> ~JBp". That is, if you believe that another belief of yours is unjustified, then the latter belief really is unjustified. Self-doubt thus justifies itself. If you start to doubt whether you're justified in believing that you have two hands, then this doubt suffices to remove ("defeat") your justification for the common-sense belief. That seems silly to me, and I'm not really sure why anyone (let alone everyone) would believe NBD. To offer something more than mere intuition, in response to Lauren's talk I thought of an argument which seems to show that NBD leads to a contradiction.

I will assume that knowledge is closed under known entailment:
(Kp & K(p -> q)) -> Kq
If you know p, and you know p implies q, then you (are in a position to) know q.

I will also assume that our beliefs are accessible to us through introspection:
Bp -> KBp
If you believe that p, then you (can) know that you believe that p.

Finally, I assume that it is possible for someone to simultaneously believe that another belief is unjustified, and yet also believe that this former skeptical belief is itself unjustified. So the following is possible:
B~JBp & B~JB~JBp

Now, if someone (S) fitting the above assumptions could know NBD, then we get a contradiction. Here's how:

1. S knows: (i) B~JBp (starting belief, introspection)
(ii) B~JBp -> ~JBp (NBD)
Thus, by closure, S also knows: (iii) ~JBp

2. JB~JBp (knowledge entails justified belief; apply to (iii).)

3. B~JB~JBp (starting belief)

4. B~JB~JBp -> ~JB~JBp (NBD for belief that ~JBp)

5. ~JB~JBp (3,4 modus ponens)

Which contradicts (2)!

So given the other assumptions, NBD cannot be known. So you shouldn't believe it.

[Update: 8 Dec 05] I came up with a parallel argument that's slightly simpler, though with slightly less plausible starting conditions: Bp and B~JBBp. It would be rather odd, but surely possible, to believe p whilst thinking you're not justified in believing that you have the former belief. So consider this:

1) Bp (starting belief)
2) KBp (from 1, introspection)
3) JBBp (from 2, knowledge entails justified belief)
4) B~JBBp (starting belief)
5) B~JBBp -> ~JBBp (NBD for belief that Bp)
6) ~JBBp (4,5 modus ponens)
Contradiction: 3, 6.

Actually, this argument is stronger than the previous one. It doesn't merely show NBD to be unknowable, but indeed straight out false. Neat. (Though I suppose the supporter of NBD would instead reject my introspection principle, and thus (2).)

One final point of interest: it would seem that if NBD were true, then we should try not to doubt our existing beliefs (well, unless we go on to give them up, I suppose). After all, we presumably want to have justified beliefs. But a necessary condition for your belief being justified is that you not doubt it (in the strong sense of believing it to be unjustified). If you don't doubt it, it might be justified or it might not. If you do doubt it, then it's guaranteed to be unjustified. So it seems preferable to take the option where you at least have *some* chance of being justified.